Disaster Displacement Driving Millions into Exile

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In 2008 alone, at least 36 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, IDMC. Of those disasters, more than 55 percent were climate related.

In human terms, what these figures tell us is that one out of every 335 individuals living on earth in 2008 was displaced, either temporarily or permanently, by the unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic reaction of Earth’s ecosystems to increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

These displacements, sometimes of Biblical proportions, as in the case of the late August flooding of India’s Kosi River that left 2 million people homeless, strain the resources of the global agencies appointed to help.

Even in a developed nation like the United States, the Iowa flood of 2008 – which official reports say devastated 50,000 homes in one state alone – put the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the second-hardest test it faced in the 21st century; the first was Hurricane Katrina.

The IDMC, a displacement reporting arm of the United Nations, was established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council. It is the foremost international agency monitoring population displacement worldwide, providing an online database that provides information and analysis on displacement in over 50 countries.

Even so, as IDMC Head Kate Halff notes, the work in incomplete:

“A mechanism for the global monitoring of displacement caused by disasters, which is currently not in place, could be a relatively straightforward process, as outlined in our report, and would allow a monitoring agency to collect data on duration of displacement, on returns, on local integration and relocations, and on the needs over time of people who have been displaced. But it will require the consistent involvement of governments, and relief and development actors.”

2008 was a record year for the IDMC, which jointly compiled a report with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on displacement figures that should alarm any thinking human being. Twenty million individuals were displaced by some catastrophic, climate-related natural event.

The danger from those climate-related natural events, the potential global warming holds for making them worse, are reasons that both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the United Nations Environment Program are calling for limits on global warming emissions to keep atmospheric CO2 below 450 parts per million. The current level is 385 ppm, with levels rising at the rate of 2 ppm per year, except for 2009, the year of deepest worldwide recession.

In spite of 2009’s lower levels, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Secretary Renate Christ notes that some aspects of climate change are happening faster than foreseen in the IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, notably the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice.

This unanticipated melting indicates to some climate scientists, like NASA’s James Hansen, that a tipping point has already been exceeded, with feedback mechanisms rapidly exacerbating global warming – a warming which Halff links directly to displacement.

“In the case of climate related rapid-onset disasters, we can make the assumption that the disaster itself is one of the main drivers of displacement – if not the main driver.”

The IDMC’s report, Monitoring Disaster Displacement in the Context of Climate Change, published in September, is not merely an attempt to shock, but a wake-up call to the world, reminding us that – as IDMC itself admits – the lack of reliable baseline data on displacement prevents organizations charged with dealing with the displaced from evaluating the full scale of the problem.

Halff says:

“The monitoring should be done by national governments and agencies responding to the needs of the populations both in humanitarian and in development and disaster risk reduction terms.”

Unfortunately, such governments and agencies are themselves often underfunded as a result of worldwide financial stress, and many governments which should be engaged in reporting, from Indonesia to Afghanistan, are critically precarious in terms of stability.

The IDMC itself, whose role includes not only monitoring displacement but making people aware of the scale of this diaspora, also advocates for the displaced and provides training on methods to provide appropriate assistance to them.

Those displaced even have their own acronym: IDP, for internally displaced people. The IDMC measures their homelessness as a result of storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, high winds, wildfires, extreme temperature swings, epidemics (both human and animal, affecting livestock), internecine war over water and arable land scarcities, and insect infestation in crops.

Some displacements are immediate, some enduring, and many are directly related to climate change.

For example, the IDMC study notes, 42 million people were living in forced displacement in 2008 due to some type of conflict. These include both IDPs and refugees; that is, those who remained within a nation, but not within their traditional territory, and those who were driven out of one nation into another, either across a border or across continents.

In the first category, consider Kenya, where in 2007 IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news agency, reported 66,000 people were homeless as a result of disputes over land ownership. How much worse will it be for Kenya’s population given the current drought, which Burke Oberle, Kenya’s director of the UN World Food Program, warns may become as tragic as the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine which killed an estimated 200,000 people and plunged the nation even deeper into an extended civil war.

The IDMC acknowledges that 2008 might have been a record displacement year because of China’s Sichuan earthquake, a natural disaster not related to climate change which displaced 41.6 million people.

However, 2009 is shaping up to be a year of similar magnitude, with India experiencing floods that have left an estimated 10 million without homes, and back-to-back typhoons in the Philippines, leaving an estimated 3.3 million people without shelter. The situation in Afghanistan, with people flooded out of their homes and crops destroyed by the rise of the Amu River, leaves a reported 900 families living in tents or moving to nearby communities – and these are only the ones we know about.

In Somalia, where rescue efforts on behalf of more than 1.5 million internally displaced people are hampered by the constant violence in the south and central regions, an estimated 5,000 refugees in Bulo Hawo on the border of Kenya are reluctant to abandon their makeshift shelters tents for fear that a return to their native territories will result in either more bloodshed or starvation because of drought. In fact, no one knows how many live in Bulo Hawo, or how many are pouring in – and through – the camp en route to the Dadaab encampment, about 366 miles to the southwest.

Halff agrees that it is impossible to extrapolate how severe displacement might become as climate changes, but she says some sort of comprehensive monitoring is essential to protect populations, even though such reporting is only one step in the overall IDP protection process:

“A global reporting agency cannot close the protection gap as such, but it would play an essential role in making sure that donor governments, protection mandated agencies and relief and development organizations have access to essential information to inform their decision-making on behalf of the rights of displaced populations. Even then, the capacity of any global reporting mechanism to close the information gap will be dependent upon the availability of primary data being gathered locally. Therefore, a fundamental role of global monitoring would also be to advocate for better data gathering nationally.”

The reporting protocols suggested by IDMC would, in Halff’s words:

"influence and inform responses to the protection and assistance needs of people displaced by disasters by providing an idea of the scale of the phenomenon.”

But Halff admits that the resources aren’t currently available to monitor disaster displacement on the immediate, 2-month, 6-month and 2-year timeline IDMC proposes, and adds:

“The main challenge is putting the issue on the agenda; resources will hopefully come as a result.”

In the meantime, global warming advances, threatening more populations with dislocation. And when they are forced to move, across a border or across a continent, they do not find welcome but another group of people already feeling the stresses of climate change and pollution, and determined to hold on to their own small share of the earth.

Thus the question remains: Even with the IDMC’s best intentions, and best efforts, where in a future world will the homeless go?


See also:

Environmental Refugees and the Definitions of Justice

Doctors: Act Now or Health Consequences of Climate Change Will Be Catastrophic

As Global Warming Makes Crops Impossible, a Shift to Camels

Solving Kenya’s Food Crisis, One Indigenous Crop at a Time

Climate Debate: Two Futures, One Choice 


(Photos, top to bottom: madmonk/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; IDMC/IRIN)

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